Water safety for kids: 'It only takes one second for drowning to occur' — tips for pools, lakes & other bodies of water this summer

As we head into summer, parents and experts urge families to be vigilant with water safety.

little boy hugs his mother while swimming
Experts share tips on how to keep your family safe on the water this summer. (Image via Getty Images)

Tori De Moreno's youngest child was 2 years old when he almost drowned — surrounded by family.

“We were swimming in a private pool with several cousins. His older cousin, then 12, wanted to ‘swim’ with him. I was on the pool deck when suddenly, my son jumped into the water," the Mississauga, Ont. mom-of-two told Yahoo Canada. "I thought my niece, standing in front of him, was ready to catch him. It took a moment for me to realize she didn’t react, and my son was drowning in front of me,” she recalls.

“He was under the water and couldn’t get up. I had to dive in and pull him up,” she says, adding that she learned a valuable lesson about not having older kids act as supervisors in the water. “Always have an adult who can swim watch the children, and always be in the water with those who can’t swim.”

Experts say it's crucial to be mindful of children in water, especially since issues can occur very quickly.

“You must pay attention. It only takes one second for drowning to occur,” says iSwim Aquatics founder Amanda Branco, who focuses on underwater survival skills. Water safety experts emphasize the use of life jackets in open waters as well as in the pool.

Three children - two sisters and their younger brother - playing at the beach on a summer day.
Research shows 48 per cent of accidental drownings occur in lakes. (Image via Getty Images)

Stephanie Bakalar, a spokesperson for Lifesaving Society Ontario, tells Yahoo Canada that most drownings in Ontario happen in open water. Statistics from the Drowning Prevention Research Centre Canada support this, with 48 per cent of accidental drownings occurring in lakes, while 11 per cent occur in pools.

“There are several risk factors, such as unpredictable weather. Water that appears calm can quickly become rough or have hidden currents. The most important thing is to be prepared," Bakalar says.

Bakalar emphasizes that wearing a life jacket or Personal Flotation Device (PFD) is the most effective preventive measure against accidental drowning. In 89 per cent of accidental drowning cases involving young adults (ages 15-34), the victim was not wearing a PFD. “There are many fun activities on open water, but simple measures like wearing a life jacket can keep you safe," she says.

Stephanie Rainey, an Ottawa-based adult swim coach, also adds that a PFD is crucial to saving someone from drowning. “No matter how strong a swimmer I am, I can not bring someone else to shore or keep them above water if I don’t have a PFD on myself. It's about how incapacitated you become when you don't have a PFD.”

Wide shot of male surfer paddling out in ocean for early morning surf session
Experts say people "overestimate" their abilities when swimming in open water. (Image via Getty Images)

Bakalar says people “notoriously overestimate their swimming ability,” adding that being in a shallow pool surrounded by lifeguards is different from being in open water. “You're not as strong a swimmer as you think.”

Many assume that being fit helps survival underwater, but experts disagree. Rainey explains that fitness is not “as important as wearing a PFD.”

“I would rather have someone be a couch potato and have them in a PFD than have them be super fit and have no PFD," she says.

Barefoot on a wooden walkway in Finland | Panorama
People can panic in emergency situations that may result in drowning. (Image via Getty Images)

Branco emphasizes on learning survival skills, saying, “Most kids or adults that drown actually know how to swim or think they know how to swim. But in an emergency, they don't know what to do because those are two very different situations.”

Father protecting her daughter teaching her how to swim
Having enough life jackets and personal floatation devices are key for summer safety. (Image via Getty Images)

As the summer season opens up, more people flock to cottages often located near water. The most important safety tip for cottage trips is to ensure the availability of life jackets and PFDs at the cottages. It’s best to carry your own PFD for enhanced safety.

People may feel pressured to go outside of their comfort level when they're with a group on the water.

“I’ve been at cottages where people have done questionable things in the water that were not safe," Bakalar says. She heavily discourages swimming and boating at night or under the influence of alcohol, which is the second leading risk factor for accidental drowning after a lack of PFD.

Bear Mountain,New York,USA,
Avoid swimming or being on the water at night or when you've been drinking. (Image via Getty Images)

Rainey also says that people often succumb to peer pressure and don't reveal their own swimming abilities. “People would be cautious about their friends and guests who are non-swimmers if they knew...People should explain that they prefer a life jacket or staying away from water.”

According to the Drowning Prevention Research Centre Canada, 37 per cent of drowning deaths in young adults and 56 per cent in middle-aged adults occurred while swimming alone.

Bakalar recommends using the arm-length technique when swimming with kids, saying, “You need to be able to reach your child and put a hand (or two, preferably) on your child, at all times when you're in or near any water. And if you can't do that, you're too far away.”

Branco says drowning doesn't look the same in each scenario and adds that it can even happen once someone has gotten out of the water.

Secondary drowning occurs when water is inhaled into the lungs and causes fluid buildup (pulmonary edema). This can happen when people have exited the pool or lake and appear to be OK at first. However, hours later, people may struggle to breathe, begin coughing, develop a fever, diarrhea and chest pain.

Little girls jump into a pool at a pool party.
Secondary drowning can occur after someone's exited the water. (Image via Getty Images)

Similarly, dry drowning can occur when someone inhales water and has a laryngeal spasm that blocks airflow. Like drowning or secondary drowning, dry drowning is a medical emergency and requires immediate attention.

Baklar recommends people do some "homework" to learn more about the beach or body of water where they'll be swimming. She recommends opting for an area with lifeguard surveillance; information that should be available on municipality websites, and ensuring all members of your party say within the supervised area.

Dangerous river swimming accident. Strong river current.
Opt to swim in lifeguard patrolled areas. (Image via Getty Images)

People should also focus on the signage, noting areas with rapids, rough water or whether or not lifeguards are on duty.

“There may be signs that say no swimming indicating that water is unsafe. It might be [that there's] rocks, which may seem like a good spot to some, but rocks are notoriously slippery and sharp and just unsafe in the water. You should avoid any rocky areas and stay by the sandy areas," she says.

Pools can provide tons of fun, but it's important to teach your kids how to respect water and understand how dangerous it can be.

Bakalar suggest hiring a local lifeguard to help supervise pool parties when lots of kids or people are in attendance. "You still have to watch your kids, you still have to be within arm's reach,” she says.

View of a pool through a mandatory safety net on the edges of a private psicine
Check your local bylaws for guidance on building a fence around your pool. (Image via Getty Images)

Installing a fence around your pool is an invaluable safety feature for families. Branco says that some people may rely on a pool cover, which could be equally as dangerous. “If the kids fall on top of the cover, they'll actually suffocate before they even drown, because it will cave in on them.”

Check your local bylaws to learn more about fencing requirements for pools.

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